Letter from Coney Island


First Person

I spent the night in Coney Island and there are no mermaids on Mermaid Avenue right now, but the machinery of New York’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy is everywhere to be seen. The streets teem with Con Edison and Verizon workers fixing overhead wires. One out of three buildings has some kind of light—from either portable generators or power lines. Relief workers, professional and volunteer, hand out goods to needy residents. A FEMA distribution center in a church parking lot includes a bank of Chase ATMs that shine like blue and white corporate beacons. Police cars sit, blue and red lights flashing, at almost every intersection, on the look out for looters and other bad actors. The weather remains on everyone’s mind—another storm is predicted today, less severe than Sandy but not insignificant, with a four- or five-foot swell. Ordinarily, that would not breach the seawall, but the fear is that the damage from Sandy has left this neighborhood much more vulnerable to another flood. In fact, the FEMA center and the temporary police headquarters packed up and moved in anticipation.

Coney Island, the sharp southwestern corner of Brooklyn, was hit hard by Sandy. The magnitude of damage is not as bad as in Staten Island, parts of New Jersey, or the Rockaways, but water damage is visible up to the second story of many buildings. There seems to be more sand on the inland side of the boardwalk than on the beach. Half the cars in the neighborhood show signs of having been underwater, many with their windows blown out. Debris and garbage sit on almost every corner.

A young policeman told me that when the decision was made to abandon the 60th Precinct, which is half a block in from the beach, the water was over their heads and the last officers had to swim out. Most of those officers have been relocated to a neighboring station house and have been working twelve-hour shifts ever since the storm. Hundreds of officers from other areas of the city have been “flown in” to help out. The large apartment buildings and housing projects do have power, but most of the smaller buildings don’t. The only businesses that are open near the beach are mechanics’ garages, using power from generators, working on waterlogged cars. The Cyclone, Nathan’s, and the boardwalk are all damaged, closed, and dark.

While I was watching, a family from Queens drove up to the corner of West 18th Street and Mermaid Avenue in their minivan filled with hot food and household staples. They brought a table on which to set up. The food and supplies were gone in ten minutes. A pair of Red Cross trucks from South Carolina arrived laden with prepared meals but without a plan for distributing them. They quickly found hungry and grateful locals on the street. Those locals looked bedraggled, but in addition to their obvious grievances, the fear about the new storm is palpable. Coney Island is recovering from this haymaker of a storm, but another bad one will seem like a particularly gratuitous sucker punch.

Mark McPherson is a police officer.